There’s an intriguing idea behind the story of “Anastasia” — that young Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia survived the slaying of her family by the Bolsheviks and is living with amnesia in the 1920s as a young woman named Anya.
The legend led to a 1956 film with Ingrid Bergman, a 1997 animated film and a musical that premiered in 2016 under the direction of Darko Tresnjak at Hartford Stage — before proceeding to Broadwas for 842 performances. Since the fall of 2018 it’s been a touring musical, returning to Hartford Jan. 14-19 at the other professional theater in town, the Bushnell.
Playing Anya is Lila Coogan, born in Stamford and raised in Ossining, New York, who we chatted up via phone from the show’s six-week engagement in Toronto recently.
“I think the roles always stay fresh as long as you always put yourself in them, using what’s going on in your own life to relate to the show,” Coogan said. “Or even just bouncing off of the chemistry you have with your co-stars; that can really help... And I’ve been blessed to have the same Vlad (the dashing con man) since day one. Ed Staudenmayer and I ... have ways to keep each other engaged that are really helpful and useful.”
Coogan caught the acting bug as a kid while accompanying another 8-year-old to try out for a production of “Annie.” She was cast in a subsequent show after that one and has been acting since, doing well enough to land the role of Jane Banks in the Broadway production of “Mary Poppins” a dozen years ago.
“It was magical. ‘Mary Poppin’s is a very, very special show to me... When you’re that young and doing a show of that caliber and that size, I truly felt like I was dreaming every night,” she said.
On Broadway, “Anastasia” met criticism about its long length, not to mention the task of doing song and dance amid a topic as sobering as the Russian Revolution. Coogan said there are differences set-wise, of course, in the touring show and a song was cut after Broadway. But it’s still on the long side.
As for playing in Connecticut’s capital city, Coogan said, “Oh my God, it’s so exciting to go back to Hartford. My aunt and uncle live in Hartford; they actually saw the original production of ‘Anastasia’ so for them, this is super cool. ... I’ll be living with them while I’m there.”
While the show’s hook is a possible Russian mystery, the story taps into themes of loss, love and destiny.
“I mean, Anya’s definitely the heart of the story and I think what Anya is searching for is a home,” Coogan said, “and she has an idea of what that home should be. And by the end of the show that idea has done a complete 180.”
As for the legend of Anastasia’s survival (debunked by historians), Coogan said, “I think the way that this legend in history ... has inspired people has always been the sense of resurrection. She was an icon for people who still wanted some resemblance of what Russia had been before this huge revolution, and I think she gave people hope. She didn’t survive; its incredibly sad what happened to this family and these children; they were very young. But the legend represents... continuing on in the face of adversity, and especially nowadays that’s an important thing to have.”
Coogan said the song in the show “that hits me in the gut” is ‘Journey to the Past,’ also relevant since we’ve entered a new decade. “To get to sing to myself a pep talk every night... by the end of that number I’m feeling so much better.”
email@example.com; Twitter: @Joemmo